There’s an old corporate communications adage that if you don’t get out there and define yourself, someone else will. Well, in the new age of social media, that someone else could be a heavyset guy with an iPhone.
For the past few days, everyone from Twitterville to the mainstream media has been abuzz about the Kevin Smith too fat to fly incident. The director was removed from a Southwest flight and the implication was that his girth required him to purchase two seats. Almost immediately, Smith took to Twitter — where he has more than 1.6 million followers — and the story erupted.
Are we looking at a new ballgame where a single man (or double man, if you believe Southwest’s side of the story) can use the power of social media to bring a mega-corporation to its knees?
Or are we looking at something much more familiar; a famous person who makes an already public incident a lot more public enabling us to gleefully click away from comparatively dreary stories about Afghanistan and Olympic pairs figure skating?
Maybe a little of both.
When it comes to this new world of public messaging and corporate communications, there are three key takeaways from the Kevin Smith incident.
First, let’s not kid ourselves. The fame is the key ingredient in this high-calorie hullabaloo. I could get booted off a flight for improperly latching my tray-table and I’m not sure my ensuing tweets would make much of a dent in terms of global mindshare (and believe me, I’m plenty husky). But this story is not just about Kevin Smith’s fame. It’s also about Southwest’s fame. If fame and messaging power is now (at least in part) measured in Twitter followers, then Southwest is right up there with Kevin Smith. Southwest has more than a million followers itself. The company has had no problem getting its side of the real-time story out to the masses. Would this have been a completely different story if Smith had been kicked off Qantas?
Second, what if Kevin Smith is wrong? What if Southwest did nothing harmful? Any anti-corporate message being served up by a celebrity is like lightly marinated tofu being thrown into a cage of starving vegans. I’m not saying Smith was wrong. I’m not even sure if I care. But he could be. And if not this time or not Kevin Smith, the next famous person to take to the tweetwaves could be totally out of line. Either way, Southwest’s PR team is faced with the same challenge. That’s just how it is in the new filterless frontier of corporate crisis management.
Third, one of the most interesting parts of this story is that, after a while, Kevin Smith seemed exhausted by the whole fiasco. On his blog, he wrote: “Now I’m gonna carry this Too Fat To Fly sh#t around like herpes for the rest of my life, and it was never even true.” He wrote that after posting well over a hundred tweets on the topic. That’s the ultimate metaphor for Generation TMI: If you share enough, you can give herpes to yourself.
Maybe, due to an over-itchy twitter finger, Smith harmed his own brand more than Southwest’s.